It's funny, isn't it, that we are tempted to lie about the dead? To deny those parts of complex personalities that made us uncomfortable, or reminded us of their humanity? Instead, at the end of a life, we all gather and feel pressure, from somewhere, to pretend we loved the person, even if we didn't. To remember that one time the person was decent, rather than the 99.99% of the rest of the miserable experiences you had with her.
So, I expect even the N&O, the long-time foresworn enemy / tango partner of Senator Jesse Helms, will pull out all the hagiographic stops as Jesse Helms is laid to rest over the next few days. I guess we should expect it.
What I had to say three years ago about the man, however, I am still willing to say today. And you can read it at The Stinging Nettle, or here.
Following my mother's sage advice, here's all I have to say:
Actually, you know what? I really couldn't say it any better than I did three years ago, when Senator Helms's autobiography elicited a column that got me my first link from Atrios. So here it is again:
The News & Observer has a fascinating article today in which it excerpts lengthy paragraphs from the uncorrected galleys of Senator Jesse Helms's upcoming memoir "Here's Where I Stand." The framing of the article is that Helms takes a "gentler" approach to controversial issues than he did as a Senator, and appears to have learned the error of his ways on AIDS.
Two passages from the book quoted in the article, however, show that the same prejudices and hatreds still boil beneath a surface which has perhaps been calmed a bit by age and illness.
First, Helms discusses the AIDS epidemic, upon which he was so grossly wrong and so central to the Reagan-era inertia which led to the deaths of thousands. Helms says that friendships with Bono and Franklin Graham helped turn his thoughts on AIDS:
"Until then," Helms writes, "it had been my feeling that AIDS was a disease largely spread by reckless and voluntary sexual and drug-abusing behavior, and that it would probably be confined to those in high risk populations. I was wrong."
Now, let's not be ungrateful for small miracles. At least Helms admits he was wrong to oppose AIDS treatment and education programs, but look at that paragraph. Implicit in that statement, despite the claim of having learned his lesson, is the reprehensible argument that had AIDS remained confined to a population of homosexuals and intraveneous drug users, it would have been nothing to worry about. Evidently, in his estimation such people deserve to suffer and die.
I don't think the old guy has learned that much at all.
Exhibit 2 is the following lengthy passage on the civil rights movement:
"I did not advocate segregation, and I did not advocate aggravation," Helms writes. "By that I mean that I thought it was wrong for people who did not know, and who did not care, about the relationships between neighbors and friends to force their ideas about how communities should work on the people who had built those communities in the first place. I believed right would prevail as people followed their own consciences."
"We will never know how integration might have been achieved in neighborhoods across our land, because the opportunity was snatched away by outside agitators who had their own agendas to advance. We certainly do know the price paid by the stirring of hatred, the encouragement of violence, the suspicion and distrust. We do know that too many lives were lost, businesses were destroyed, millions of dollars were diverted from books and teachers to support the cost of buses and gasoline. We do know that turning our public schools into social laboratories almost destroyed them."
It is here that Helms shows he has learned nothing, really, except a gentler way of making the same point he used to make in fulminating tirades on WRAL. The point: "how dare the Federal government and the NAACP come down heah and tell us how to treat our negroes." The claim that he did not advocate segregation is an out and out lie. But this statement is more insidious than a mere after-the-fact denial of behavior which was perfectly evident for all to see. The worst part is his contention that segregation would have ended on its own, without the spark of the Civil Rights Movement.
This claim, this fantasy, that without federal support and direct action by activists both from the South and elsewhere, we in the South would have gradually worked our way to a peaceful and harmonious integration, is a staple of segregation apologists. It is horseshit. It sets forth the South as apart from the nation, claiming that America should have continued to abide the festering sore of segregation and allowed the South to work its own way through it. For 75 years, the South did not "work its own way through it." No, instead people were lynched. (Flame retardant - yes, I know lynchings took place all across the country - neither segregation nor racism were confined to the South.)
The "friends and neighbors" Senator Helms remembers through the rose-colored glasses of his own skewed recollection were not friends, or neighbors. They were people trapped in a system that impoverished both races - both economically and spiritually. They existed in the dehumanizing vise of segregation, and society was deprived of the contributions of all.
Helms still, in 2005, advocates against Brown v. Board, the Civil Rights Acts, the Voting Rights Acts and the Civil Rights Movement, in favor of a go-it-slow approach which would have supposedly allowed us to develop our own way out of segregation.
The only thing such a policy would have achieved is to have allowed several more generations of African Americans to live without the vote, without opportunity and under the oppressive and brutal heel of Jim Crow. More importantly for Helms, however, the effect would have been to allow Jesse Helms to have lived and died without ever having had white power questioned or opposed.
He clearly blames the government and "outside agitators" for "the stirring of hatred, the encouragement of violence, the suspicion and distrust," as if the SCLC and the NAACP were holding the german shepherds and the fire hoses. As if Cheney, Goodman and Schwerner had shot themselves and buried themselves in a dam in Mississippi. As if Emmitt Till had asked to be beaten to death. As if the Wilmington and Tulsa riots had been instigated by blacks. As if the murder of the young black Vietnam veteran in "Blood Done Sign My Name" would have been better handled in silence, swept under the rug of indifference and segregation.
No, Jesse hasn't changed. Clearly, this "mellower" Helms is the same old stinky cheese. While the crust of age may now hide the noxious odor, once you cut down into it, it's the same old rot.
I have little to add to that today, as Senator Helms has passed away. I wish God's peace on his family, as they struggle with the loss of a man who, by all accounts, was a loving and kindly grandfather.
I also hope that God will show mercy. He already has in a way, as Helms did not have to live to see the election of an African-American President of the United States and the utter destruction of the Republican Party as a result of the policies and ineptitude of a President who has pursued a Helmsian domestic and foreign policy to the hilt.
Sorry, Mom. I couldn't help it.